Established less than a year after the Haymarket massacre from which most of the world derives its annual celebration of workers, Labor Day in the United States—after more than 40 years of a growing divide between workers and owners—seems most appropriately celebrated today with a dose of anger at what’s been done to the American dream.
What’s that you say, Bruce Springsteen? You have a song based on the experience of steel workers in Youngstown, Ohio that might fit the occasion? And it ends with an epic and soul-searing guitar solo from Nils Lofgren?
From the Monongahela valley to the Mesabi iron range,
To the coal mines of Appalachia, the story’s always the same;
Seven hundred tons of metal a day, and then you tell me the world’s changed,
Once I made you rich enough, rich enough to forget my name.
Here in Youngstown….
If you’re looking for a song that captures the notion of “counting the cost” of discipleship, it’s hard to do better than the great, great Nina Simone wringing every last drop of meaning and consequence from “I Told Jesus It Would Be All Right (If He Changed My Name)”.
From Roland Hanna’s self-assured opening piano solo to Garnett Brown’s alternately playful and virtuoso leads on trombone to the majestic and awe-inspiring swing of all four sections of the band cooking at the same time, “Ah, That’s Freedom” (written by Thad Jones’ brother Hank) shows off the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra in full command of its considerable powers, just one year into its residency as the Village Vanguard’s house band.
They say that freedom is a constant struggle, but “Ah, That’s Freedom” says something different: the struggle for freedom may be constant, but freedom itself is joyful, relaxed, swinging, expressive, confident, liberation.
Outsourcing today’s music commentary on “Don’t Shoot”, the all-star hip-hop response to Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson to the remarkable Rembert Browne:
This isn’t a cohesive song by any stretch — which seems appropriate. It’s 10 different people expressing 10 different points of view, 10 different feelings colliding. It’s a parallel to what’s actually happening in and related to Ferguson, a unified cause that lacks a unified voice. A multitude of opinions, concise and vague, calm and angry, peaceful and aggressive, emotional and practical, researched and unfounded. And a group of people sharing a common desire, but without any clear consensus on how to react. Or what to do.
The song is simply a louder, more well-polished “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” sign. Or in some cases, “Shoot Back.” And even with ever-lingering cynicism about the origins, the motives, and the players involved, the presentation is representative. It’s imperfect. And one of the reasons hip-hop is important is because of its imperfections. It’s emotional. It jumps to conclusions. And it often echoes your most unrefined, raw, original thoughts and, responsibly or not, broadcasts them for all to hear.
A regular reader writes, “I think this satisfies your First Rule of Cover Songs*, no?“.
Why, yes. Yes, in fact it does.
Covering one of James Brown’s signature songs is one thing. Covering it with an orchestral quintet that includes harp and cello is another thing entirely. (And having a room-filling voice like Broadway star Morgan James just puts it over the top.)
*You’ve got to bring something new to it.